Why It’s So Hard To Break A Bad Habit (And How To Actually Change One)

The year-end is fast approaching which means so are the New Year festivities followed by a slew of New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps you’ve already thought about what you’re going to do with the fresh start a new year brings, or maybe you aren’t the kind of person who makes resolutions because they simply never stick. Either way, most people have some kind of habit they would love to change. The tricky thing is, habits are notoriously difficult to change. So here’s some real help.

There is so much information about how we should eat well, exercise more, quit smoking, spend less or sleep better. All of these messages come with some kind of motivator – whether it be the promise of better health, a fitter body, a stronger mind or some social advantage, usually in the form of ‘Drop 5 kilos in time for summer’ or ‘The 4-minute workout you need in your life’. So we are given the motivation, the reward or incentive and sometimes, the plan – wrapped up in a pretty package to drop the habits that are holding us back. It’s so easy! There’s minimal fuss!

Yet despite all of the information and tools at our disposal, we all stumble or fall flat when it comes to actually – truly – transforming these bad habits.

Why can’t it be easy to be good?

Even when we are truly motivated, taking on a new habit or breaking an existing one is a mammoth task. Surely there is a better solution than what we’re already trying?

Why habits form

Habits are deeply ingrained in us, and all the brain needs is a trigger before you’re back at square one. We can train our brain to act a certain way when certain stimuli or a particular situation is introduced. For example, if you have a cigarette or two with your beer at the pub, before you’ve had time to consciously decide you are going to resist, your body is already sending out signals to have a smoke. Or maybe you reach for comfort food when you’re stressed, so when work ramps up, so does your need for chocolate to feel like you can tackle your duties. Often, by the time you’re engaging the parts of your brain that tell you that you really shouldn’t smoke or binge, the autopilot is a step ahead of you.

There is also a reward system at play. That block of chocolate? You might consume more than you initially meant to – despite understanding that you’re destroying an entire block of it – and you really enjoy it. That’s because the reward centres of your brain are firing like crazy. When things slow down and there’s nothing but an empty wrapper left, you quickly become aware and mindful of the fact that a family block is now in your stomach. But during the process this autopilot/reward system keeps that habit in business, and for a long time.

What doesn’t help you break habits

When you’ve smashed through your food, finished your smoke or sat on the couch for longer than you wanted, most of us feel a bit of guilt or regret. These feelings may motivate change in some people, but if you are shamed for your behaviour, you’re significantly less likely to make a change. Shame is an attack on your very core and disables some of the mental tools you need to tap into to make positive changes.

Ain’t nobody got time…

Just like we all have different reasons for taking up certain habits, our way of breaking them is not the same for everyone. So following an exercise plan that worked for one person may not work for another because it does not take into account a) the motivation for the bad habit, b) your own strengths and c) your weaknesses or goals.

Working out the root of your own habits is much more likely to allow you to tailor a solution that will actually stick.

What can help you break habits

Step #1: Recognise that change is a process and often not a straight line of progress

Generally, people who need to make lifestyle changes pass through stages where the change is contemplated, prepared for and then actioned. If you can sustain it, it becomes a habit to maintain. At any time, you can move back to a previous stage and that is totally OK. It takes time for new habits to wire into your brain or bad old habits to be superseded.

Step #2: Once you have decided you want to change your habit, develop some insight into why you’re doing the bad habit

Do you skip exercise after work because you’re too tired or demotivated when you hit the couch? Do you eat biscuits in the tea room at work while you’re making social connections with your coworkers? Do you smoke because you’re worried about gaining weight if you quit? Do you avoid running because you actually find it boring? Be honest with yourself about what drives your reasoning, no matter what it is. There are no right answers and certainly no shameful answers. There is what there is and any insight is positive because you can build on it.

Step #3: Now you need to work out why you want to change in the first place

Just like with bad habits, there are no wrong reasons for why you want to improve. It might be because you want to look better in jeans or maybe you want to do well at a charity sports event. Perhaps you’ve had a health scare or maybe you just want to avoid one. Find out what you really want because that ‘why’ answer is your motivator that you can draw upon when you feel like you’re struggling.

Step #4: Set some reasonable goals

If you are going to take up running, why don’t you investigate joining a beginners group where they have walk breaks so you don’t expect to run a marathon straight away? Or maybe just start of walking and work up from there. Every day you make change that is positive is still one day closer than you were before. And it will ultimately get you to your goals.

Make it easier for yourself

It’s also important to get yourself resourced. That might be throwing out the ice cream or taking your workout gear to work so you exercise before you get trapped on your couch. Your resources might also include a support group of people who will cheer you on and help you in a weak moment. Set yourself up for success by making sure you have the means to do it.

Slash just do everything in your workout gear.

Be kind

We are all human and we all do things that are ‘bad’ for us or neglect the things that are ‘good’ for us from time to time. Sometimes we have let our bad habits go so far, we wonder how we are ever going to claw back to health, fitness or happiness – but being horrible to yourself about it isn’t going to help the situation. In fact, it can keep you in your vicious cycle (remember what I mentioned earlier about shame?)

Learn how to be gentle when you stumble, learn how to be proud of your success. There is no shame allowed here! Practice being mindful and honest with your achievements and shortcomings.

And of course, just because change is hard, doesn’t mean you should stop trying. Changing bad habits is a process not a magic trick – so stick with it.

Dr Nikki Stamp is a heart surgeon, a champion for women achieving in domains that are traditionally dominated by men and a strong advocate for the importance of self-care and work-life balance. She is an ambassador for #ILookLikeASurgeon